Review: The Chinese State Circus

LOTTIE UNWIN loves everything about the circus, spare the clowns themselves.

Chinese State Circus Corn Exchange Lottie Unwin Shaolin

Monday 1st February – Wednesday 3rd, 8.00, The Corn Exchange, £22, £19 £16 + £2 booking fee per ticket (£3 reduction for students).


Men balancing themselves on spears, girls on unicycles catching bowls on their heads, Shaolin monks smashing sticks over their heads, phenomenal diabalo tricks and gravity defying trapeze stunts is an easy sell.  Though I cannot claim any ‘Big Top’ expertise, having not been to the circus since I cried into my Mum’s lap in fear of the golden dragon at Zippo’s, probably aged 7, I have a funny feeling that the Chinese do the whole thing very well.

It felt professional, skilled and truly managed to take you from Market Square to another land – an electrifying, impressive, if very bizarre pastiche of China.  The laws of both physics and anatomy are fodder for the bone bending high-flying team.  The performers had a scintillating energy and when tricks went wrong they had another go, working hard for our seal of approval.

Running away with the circus has a timeless allure that I no longer understand.  Rather than inducing the bitter jealousy of the talented that musicals and dancing leave me with, the circus inspired unadulterated awe.  I winced at the impossibility of some of the acts, held my breath at the danger and marveled at just how hard the performers were working.

The acts were strung together, rather brutally interrupted, by the nauseating tale of Monkey Boy and Pig, panto clowns who gestured and mimed as though we were deaf and supposed to believe it was them talking.  Instead, a manufactured Chinese voice-over proclaimed the story of Moulin and narrated the ‘banter’ between Monkey Boy and Pig.  Pig thought he was a New York taxi driver with a love of popcorn and hybrid accent so irritating that Chinese torture methods is my only solution.  I am sure the O.A.P audience would willingly support throwing the fake-beard stroking King into the bamboo pit for good measure.

Though the Corn Exchange has the glamorous advantage that the audience is not largely friends, family or acquaintances of those involved there was nothing glitzy about the lovingly gelled hair of the man in front.  While I am short, I am not unusually so and would have liked to be able to see the monk get both legs behind his head at once, rather than interpret the oohs and ahhs of the crowd around me.

With all the student discounts £13 is still an expensive worst seat scenario but it buys you a night unlike anything else in Cambridge.  Unlike with a lot of Cambridge theatre to claim ‘I could do this better’, ‘this feels like every other ADC play ever’ or simply ‘I am well unimpressed’ would be as foolish as trying to balance yourself on a spear tip at home.